Metal employers agree to pay employees’ union fees

Shop stewards within the Danish Metalworkers’ Union have taken new initiatives in the long-lasting fight against the so-called ‘yellow’ trade unions in an effort to curtail their own membership decline. For the first time ever, the trade union has signed a local agreement with companies, through which employers agree to pay their employees’ union membership fee as a fringe benefit.

Since the abolition of closed-shop agreements, which force some groups of employees to become members of the trade union present in the company, the number of new members joining the so-called ‘yellow’ trade unions – unions that stress a harmony of interest between employees and employers – has increased significantly (DK0601104F). The ‘traditional’ trade unions have since launched different initiatives aiming to curtail their own membership decline. One of the latest and more surprising initiatives is a local agreement reached in the autumn of 2007 between the Danish Metalworkers’ Union (Dansk Metal) and a number of companies in the capital city region of Copenhagen and in the North Jutland region in the north of the country. According to the agreement, the employers involved will pay their employees’ union membership fee to Dansk Metal.

Level of negotiations

Company-level negotiations are linked to the sectoral collective bargaining rounds under the umbrella of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisationen i Danmark, LO) and the Confederation of Danish Employers (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) in early 2007. On that occasion, a number of sectoral framework agreements on a national level were concluded. However, negotiations about pay and working conditions usually take place at company level between shop stewards and management.

Traditional versus yellow trade unions

The fight between the traditional and yellow trade unions, such as the Christian trade union movement, originates with the establishment of the first Danish collective agreement regulating industrial relations, the so-called ‘September compromise’ (Septemberforliget) of 1899 (DK9908140F). The Christian Danish Common Association (Den Kristne Danske Fællesforening) consisting of both employers and employees was created as a strikebreaker organisation during the decisive lockout in 1899, which eventually resulted in the September compromise. The Christian association was based on a concept of harmony that excludes collective industrial action in connection with industrial disputes. The lack of autonomy in the employees’ relationship with employers and the abolition of the right to strike thus gave the traditional trade unions the exclusive right to conclude collective agreements with an independent employer. The expression ‘yellow’ is likely to have stemmed from the French language where it was used for the first time to define strikebreakers.

Efforts to control union membership decline

Over the last decades, the ‘alternative’ trade union movement, now consisting of organisations other than Christian associations, has experienced a significant increase in membership numbers. This is partly due to the fact that the membership fee is only a fifth of that charged by trade unions affiliated to LO and because of the abolition of closed-shop agreements. These issues have revived the discussion about the problem of so-called ‘free-riders’. Danish collective agreements are sectoral agreements following occupational lines; these agreements cover all employees in a company of the sector who have signed a collective agreement and not only single trade union members. This is the tradition in Denmark and a strong principle for employers. Thus, members of the Christian Trade Union (Kristelig Fagforening), for instance, are entitled to all of the benefits pertaining to a collective agreement signed by an LO-affiliated trade union but without paying the membership fee to the same union. For this reason, Dansk Metal and LO see the local agreement on employer-paid trade union membership fees as a real breakthrough and an initiative that may curb the decline in trade union membership in the long run. If this kind of pilot scheme for a new fringe benefit spreads, it could mean that the alternative unions will lose a significant number of members. Employees may begin to question paying a low membership fee when they can join a more expensive but ‘real’ trade union and have the fees covered by their employer.

Trade unions satisfied with local agreement

The President of Dansk Metal, Thorkil E. Jensen, expresses great satisfaction about the new local agreement. In this regard, he stated:

This is the members’ fight against the yellow unions at the workplace. We think that it is very positive that the shop stewards have succeeded in having the membership fee paid and that the employers in this way send a signal that they want to hire employees who are members of an agreement-signing trade union.

Commentary

It is, however, too early to say if this agreement will have a knock-on effect on other company agreements. The employer organisations, spearheaded by the powerful Confederation of Danish Industries (Dansk Industri, DI), have always taken the position that this kind of fringe benefit will never appear on the agenda of the sectoral collective bargaining. Employers should simply not pay union membership fees. In this regard, it is also worth noting that, according to the President of Dansk Metal, Thorkil E. Jensen, the agreement is locally based and developed by the shop stewards as a result of the negotiations at company level following the conclusion of the sectoral collective agreements.

Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS

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